It’s a few minutes past 8 a.m. on a bright Saturday morning at a sprawling seven-bedroom home in the historic Movie Colony neighborhood of Palm Springs. A group of Chicago designers in town for Modernism Week is mingling in the living room, spilling outside to the poolside patio. The air may be chilly, but the guests seem happy to have traded snow and single-digit temps for the desert’s sunny skies and 60-something-degree days.
In the kitchen, private chef Will Acasio intends to put some of that SoCal spirit on a plate. He circles the room, instructing an assistant to garnish individual cups of honey-drizzled local berries, melon, and mango with fresh mint leaves for an extra pop of color. He assembles a cast-iron skillet of vibrant vegetables — steamed spinach, sautéed strips of red and yellow sweet peppers, and silky strings of Maui onions — and places it on a dining table next to a massive pot of soupy black beans.
There are plenty of ingredients yet to be utilized, like a pile of plum tomatoes, gleaming jalapeños, and bunches of leafy cilantro that Acasio plans to quickly whip into a pico de gallo to accompany his scrambled eggs, and a small container of edible flowers he keeps on hand in case a dish needs a final touch of something pretty.
“I use local, seasonal ingredients and make those the stars,” says Acasio, who sticks with organic, non-GMO components and eschews commercial distributors for weekly visits to farmers markets. “You should know what season you’re in and where you are by what’s on your plate. I’m all about blending a high-end experience with uber-healthy food and the best ingredients I can find, down to the salt and pepper. And my clients get that.”
The Maui-born Acasio worked for more than 20 years as a corporate buyer for Costco before enrolling in culinary school in his 40s and later cooking at Roy’s and The Edge Steakhouse in Rancho Mirage. He initially launched his private chef service as a side gig, targeting visitors planning stays at vacation homes. When business started booming two years ago, he left the restaurant world. While he found a lucrative niche market, he asserts a military-style, come-prepared-for-anything skill set. Because most of his clients live elsewhere, he rarely meets them or sees the venue or the kitchen he’ll be working in until he shows up the day of, often several hours before the meal is set to begin, with multiple team members in tow who help prep, serve, and clean.
That means never assuming what’s going to be on hand when he arrives. Most of what he’s using this day to prepare breakfast for 20 guests — a portable griddle, pots and pans, mixing bowls, even the dozens of cooking utensils he carts from job to job in a handyman’s tool box — are his own.
“I bring everything — cutting boards, plates, silverware, glassware, all the cookware, everything down to a pastry tip. If one thing is missing, it can ruin everything,” he says. “The only real information I need ahead of time is if it’s a gas stove or electric stove.”
Menu possibilities are dizzying, of course, but Acasio first focuses on figuring out the meal experience a potential client wants. Multicourse plated? Family-style? Small plates? (“That’s a big trend. More people are saying, ‘We don’t want a big traditional meal, we want lots of small plates.’ ”)
Next, he offers some broad gastronomy options: epicurean (the trendy art-on-a-plate offerings you’d find at a swanky restaurant); world cuisine (a Mediterranean menu or Thai-inspired meal, for example); or some less-daring American comfort-style fare (think short ribs and wedge salads). “I ask questions to get an idea of their mindset,” he explains, noting that most clients, often busy professionals, prefer communicating over email. “I’ll send some ideas and ask them to let me know if anything sticks out as a favorite. Once they latch on to an idea, I’ll [start] full-on menu planning around that style.”
Acasio uses tweezers to garnish the cilantro-lime pesto grilled shrimp.
That often involves mixing tried-and-true dishes with new ones he’ll dream up: a roasted carrot crostini with honeyed ricotta as an alternative to basic bruschetta; an “LGBT” (lobster, guacamole, bacon, and tomato) sandwich for a pool party; and his now-signature twist on pesto: a local cilantro-lime version he often uses to coat grilled jumbo shrimp plated over microgreens.
As Coachella Valley tourism has increased, so has the number of visitors looking for distinctive dining options, says Rico Montero, owner of The Desert Butler, a concierge and event-planning service. “People are after a more curated, personalized experience, something very special,” he says. “Will usually has the best ideas for menus, and they’re really well-received by clients. He’s constantly creating new things. It’s pretty amazing.”
With skewers, he flips all of the shrimp at once.
You’ve probably seen that patronizing phrase Substitutions and modifications politely declined on a restaurant menu. An edict meant to cut off at the pass requests from the growing number of diners with dietary restrictions, allergies, and general dislikes. But Acasio says he enjoys creating menus around special dietary needs. He comes up with base dishes he can build on, customizing each plate separately for those with restrictions, all the while making sure no guest feels singled out or, worse, neglected. (Every vegan can tell you about the pain of staring down a pathetically plain portobello mushroom cap while fellow diners feast on filet mignon and truffled mashed potatoes).
Acasio uses tweezers to garnish the cilantro-lime pesto grilled shrimp.
“My goal is to try to make all the dishes look identical,” he says. That might mean subbing a plant-based patty inside a slider bun, using cauliflower “rice” for a stir-fry, or creating a vegan ranch dressing that tastes better than the buttermilk version.
Montero says that Acasio’s ability to make those accommodations while keeping the cuisine on point is part of why he so frequently turns to him. This weekend’s job involved preparing two breakfasts, one brunch, a cocktail party with 11 tray-passed hors d’oeuvres, and a boxed lunch for a group that included multiple vegetarians, a Keto-diet follower, and a guest who eats everything but pork.
“We agree on a menu but then we get thrown a curveball during the meal when someone suddenly says they’re vegan or gluten-free,” Montero explains, “and he just says, ‘No worries,’ and whips something up.”
While visitors make up more than three-quarters of Acasio’s business, the rest are either full- or part-time residents. In a rather ingenious move, he began contacting real estate agents who represent luxury properties with the perfect gift idea to present clients who close on a home: himself. “I told them I’ll create a four-course, sit-down, two-person, intimate private meal for them. It’s a way to get into these expensive homes and to retain these clients. It has paid off.”
Sometimes it’s the residents of those manses — who may not spend all that much time in their kitchens — who press Acasio to become even more resourceful. Like the fashion designer who hired him to create an extravagant midnight meal. “None of the appliances were hooked up. It still looked like a model home. And she lived there!” he recounts. Acasio went to a neighbor who kindly allowed him to cook there. “I left a large family-style dinner for them as a thank you. That was a big challenge, but we figured it out.”
Favorite Dish to Cook: Pad Thai
“I’m married to a flight attendant, and we travel the world. I went to Thailand and took a couple cooking classes, so I take those authentic recipes and tweak them based on the ingredients I find here.”
Food He Hates: Avocados
“But I’ve made a chocolate pudding with them, and that’s the only way I’ll eat them.”
Most Over-the-Top Request: A huge caviar platter
“It was to go along with this dinner of all this lobster — lobster tails, lobster claws. The client’s thing was that she wanted a big plate of red and black caviar on the table when you walked in. I ordered red roe from a specialty mail-order place. It was about $1,700.”
Best Part of Living in the Coachella Valley: The sense of community
“It’s like stepping back in time and being able to talk to your neighbors. Here, I know everybody’s life story.”
“You should know what season you’re in and where you are by what’s on your plate,” says chef Will Acasio, who prepares tray-passed caprese skewer appetizers with red and yellow heirloom cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil from his own garden, and a merlot-balsamic dressing.